[current] metaphors imagine public data as a huge, passive, untapped resources – lakes of stuff that only has value when it is extracted and processed. But this framing completely removes the individual agency that created the stuff in the first place. Oil is formed by millions of years of compression and chemical transformation of algae and tiny marine animals (…). Data is created in real time, as we click and swipe around the internet. The metaphor might work in an economic sense, but it fails to describe what data is as a material. It’s not oil, it’s people.
The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil – as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago – it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.
Needed: a better metaphor for data
We need metaphors for data that capture the agency and visceral emotions that our personal data can generate. Metaphors that link it directly into our lives and relationships, that help us recognise that this is us – we’re the ones being traded and sold and stored and analysed and processed. Perhaps then we’d understand how we can handle this data in a more responsible way.
A metaphor that puts our personal experience at the forefront will help us find out where to draw lines in how our lives are stored and processed, and to understand that the lines will need to be different for different people. (…) Maybe we should be very explicit, and refer to data as our lives. Imagine if a service had to ask you permission to ‘track your life’ or ‘share information about your life with other providers’. Already that feels grittier, more visceral, than just ‘data’.
We urgently need to come up with metaphors like this, that bring the discussion over data down from the skies above us and locate it in the minutiae of our everyday lives. Because that, after all, is what this data actually is.